8 Quick and Easy Ways to Improve Your Photos AFTER the Shot - A Beginner’s Guide to Editing


Most of us take photos that could use a little tweaking afterward. Whether it’s to fix a mistake, or give your picture a little extra sizzle and shine. Sometimes the difference between a good photo and a great photo is a little editing. This article introduces the top 8 adjustments for everyday photo editing.

The adjustments covered here are available in most editing software. Many cameras come with basic editing and organizing software, and there are free ones available too. At the end of this article I’ll provide some links to popular software. For the examples here I used my favorite, ACDSee Pro. For your software, look for similar titles in the menus to make similar adjustments.

Tool Definitions

  • Exposure (Brightness) – Used to globally adjust the brightness of the entire image.

  • Levels (Tone Curves) – Allows you to adjust the black, midtone and white values in an image. In some ways it works similar to Exposure and Brightness, but instead of the whole image it allows you to focus on specific tone values.

  • White Balance (Color Cast) - Different colors of light are emitted by different light sources. Sometimes it's off, this tool removes color cast to create a photo that is correctly color balanced.

  • Contrast – Adjusts the difference between the darkest and lightest areas in a photo. The greater the difference, the higher the contrast.

  • Red Eye - Red eye occurs when the light from your digital camera's flash reflects off the retinas in the subject's eyes. The subject's eyes look red instead of their normal color. The effect is most common when light levels are low, outdoor at night, or indoor in a dimly-lit room. This tool removes the red eye.

  • Sharpen (Unsharp Mask) – Adds sharpness and crispness. Fix slightly out of focus photos.

  • Crop (Trim) - Removing unwanted image areas.

  • Black and White - Convert a color image to black and white.

Exposure (Brightness)
If an image is underexposed, this tool is used to increase the overall brightness of the image. This tool brightens all parts equally. For more control and if you software has it, you may find the Levels tool better for the image you're working on. To brighten the image, simply move the slider to a positive number. To darken the image, move the slider to a negative number.

The levels tool works similar to Exposure (Brightness). The difference with this tool, is you don’t affect the whole image at once. You adjust the blacks, midtones, and whites separately. I often use levels instead of the exposure tool, but sometimes I will use both.

The levels tool has a histogram display which illustrates the mapping of the tones in your image. The rule of thumb for a well exposed, evenly lit scene is to have a histogram resembling a mountain. But that's just a rule of thumb. If your image has a lot of dark colors, or a lot of light colors, then the histogram will look different.

In the first histogram below, there is space between the tone mapping and the edge. A typical correction with a histogram like this would be to moved the sliders in just to the edge of the tone mapping.

This is one of my favorite tools. It can take flat images, and really make them pop! Like all tools, sometimes the change is subtle, but it still makes a difference. Other times, the change is extreme and saves your picture.
Here's an example of on an extremely underexposed image. I used levels instead of the "exposure/brightness" tool because I didn't want the brightness increased in the whole image. I only wanted to increase the lighter values and not brighten the wood post holding the sign. The best way to see the difference between the two tools is to try them both on an image.
This histogram indicates a severely underexposed image. Notice how the entire histogram falls to the left of center.


By simply sliding the white slider left the image brightens up quite nice.

If your image is flat and dull, the contrast tool will help perk it up. I usually make levels and white balance adjustments before tweaking the contrast.























White Balance (Color Cast)
The image looked a little on the “cool”(blue) side to me. Using the white balance color picker I picked a neutral color (white or light gray often work well). The software then adjusted the white balance. Some software has advanced sliders to further help you fine tune the adjustment.


Crop (Trim)

When cropping, for most uses keep the same ratio the image was in originally, or use the print size if you intend to print the image. Keep in mind if you crop too tight, the image might not have enough resolution and may look bad. When you crop, make sure you don’t make things look worse!


Unsharp Mask (Sharpen)
Some software has one sharpen or clarity slider, while others have three. Whichever one your software has, use it carefully. This is another tool that’s easy to go overboard with. For software with 3 settings, this is what each does:
Amount - Specifies the amount of light added to or removed from each edge. Higher values produce darker edges. This is the main part of the sharpening effect. Use anywhere from 20-150 depending on your software and image requirements.
Radius - Specifies the number of pixels to adjust around each edge. Higher values increase the number of sharpened pixels. Usually keep this around 2-5, depending again on your particular software. Watch your image and make sure it doesn't get too funky.
Threshold - Specifies how different the lightness values of two adjacent pixels must be before they are sharpened. Higher values increase the required difference. It is recommended that you set the threshold so that it enhances edges while keeping background noise to a minimum. 1-10 are common settings.
A common setting I use in ACDSee is 50-2-6. In Photoshop Elements 85-1-4 is a good place to start.

Red Eye Removal

One of the simplest tools to use is red eye removal. Some software you drag a box around the effected eye, while others you simply click the red eye.



Black and White
There are many different ways to convert an image to black and white. Check your software for how to do it. If I'm doing a basic change to black and white, I'll usually add some contrast to it afterward, to give it a deeper richer feel. Also, there are many dedicated tools available for helping you convert. In a future article we'll cover some of those.

Black and white tends to add a certain timeless appeal to an image. I also use it on images that through basic tweaking, just don't look right any other way. I've also had images where the face was so overexposed there was nothing I could do. Converting an image to black and white can mask otherwise unfix-able flaws and salvage your image.

I like this one in black and white. The pose just seemed to call for it. I like the color version too (the subject anyway) but I was bothered by the background with the different light temperature. It seemed a bit too distracting for this image. There are things I could do about that, but black and white was the first thing I tried and I like the result.

The next one was a situation where the face was overexposed in some areas. Not as bad as some I've saved using black and white conversion, but this should give you an idea. So before you delete a shot you thought hopeless, try a black and white version.

Some scenes were made for black and white.


Keep in Mind

  • This was a “crash” course. Many of the tools were explained as briefly as possible. I recommend experimenting with what you have and using your particular software.

  • Some images may only need subtle changes, often that's the difference between good and great. While others will need a bit more work

  • Whole articles could be devoted to each tool and many others, but I hope this helps you get started.

  • You may want make edits and choose “Save As” to your edited version. At least until you gain more confidence in your editing skills. When I first started I didn’t do that and I really messed up some photos. If you save a copy you can always go back and start over. Trust me on this. I have many images I hopelessly messed up. As my skill grew I laughed at some of my early work. But those inexperienced edits were locked in the image forever! Of course, I didn't have an article like this to guide me ;) so I jumped in head first and really had no idea what I was doing.

  • Take your time and enjoy learning these basic editing skills. Your images will begin to stand our from everyone else’s, unless they read this too ;) ... Then I guess everyone's images should be looking better, right? 


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